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There are differences between these crew experiences and other descriptions available. Someone asked me once whether crews have changed since those days, or whether there are other factors or different kinds of crews.

People on our crew could leave when they chose. Neither physical coercion nor intimidation nor debt was used to force anyone to stay. If someone wanted to leave but had no car, and he or she lacked funds for a bus ticket, one was purchased for him or her. There was a dogmatic optimism about the limitless opportunities of a career in sales that had to be overcome first. But they could leave. People slept two to a hotel room, which I think is important. When I hear about some other crews with four to a room, I think how hard it might be to maintain a sense of self if you are never at least half of the people in the room, night after night.

Yet it is credibly reported that these abuses do occur on many crews: physical abuse, crowded, unsafe vans full of agents, overcrowding of hotel rooms, various tactics to retain agents forcibly, abandonment of agents, and more.

I don’t think the difference between a soap or magazine crew, or crew selling some other product, is very important here. I can think of three factors that do seem important: the personality and ethics of individual managers; and the use of cars on a “patch” crew; and the implications of groups traveling together as mostly closed systems.

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First: it makes all the difference what kind of person the manager is. I spent most of my time with one company, but I did have some contacts with other companies’ leadership, meet individual agents who had worked with other companies, and hear some stories. Broader crew culture seemed accepting of abusive behavior in a way that was – well, was simply wrong.

Ronnie Matus had been a member of such a crew, but he had never taken on those attitudes or behaviors. He was inclined toward peaceful ways, and this was a case where personality trumped experience and training. There were other peaceful managers too. I think that, as “salesman” personalities, they found verbal persuasion the most natural way to resolve difficulties, and maybe also they just had been raised to treat others well.

In addition, my husband had been born with a severely impaired left arm. I don’t think he would have gotten into many school yard fist-fights under any circumstances; but surely with such a physical disadvantage, from an early age he had every reason to develop other ways to deal with, and he applied those lessons as he managed sales crews later. I never asked my spouse why he doesn’t hit people, but that’s how I his wife see it.

Likewise with other abuses that occur on some crews, not all: dishonest bookkeeping or manipulative systems that kept agents in real or perceived debt to the company, and the abandonment of unproductive agents proverbially “with a dollar and a roadmap” in towns where they had no contacts. I cannot excuse a system that allows these things to happen to anyone. But I do insist there are crews that do, and those that don’t do them. It was not the kind of thing my husband would do to people. Some managers probably were too principled to do this. Ronald Matus is more a man of empathy than one of rules. He wouldn’t do such a thing to others because it wouldn’t make them feel good, and it wouldn’t make him feel good.

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I think the use of cars on a “patch crew” could also make a difference in how agents are treated by managers. Once when we attended a convention, Ronnie knew who a lot of other people were, but they did not all know him at first. Then, after an introduction or reminder, they might remember and say, “Oh, yeah… patch.” He worked mainly (though not exclusively) out in the farm areas. I got the impression that patch crews were not as well-known as city crews, and perhaps becoming less common. In the 1950’s and 60’s when Ronnie first became an agent, he worked patch, and he actually walked from farm to farm. (In those days, of course, farms were smaller and people walked more than they do now. But I still think that’s a lot of walking.) In the 1980’s, his agents on the farm areas all drove cars that they owned.

I don’t know a lot about other patch crews in the 1980’s or the 2010’s, but I expect that there would be no other way for agents to work, than driving individually. It would probably be impractical and unwise for a manager to own for working patch also.

Besides, Ronnie liked to help agents buy cars. To this day, he loves to tell stories about the times that he purchased some of his first cars as a young man. He tells about the time he went home to Cedar Rapids for a visit during his early crew days, and he was driving a new 1959 red Ford purchased with a bank note. His father, a union member and a pipe fitter, scoffed that, “you can’t pay for a car by selling magazines!” But he, Ronnie, proved that he could.

Sometimes as a manager Ronnie would help agents go to a used or new car lot, or some other venue, to investigate a car purchase, and sometimes he helped them go to the bank to talk to a loan officer for the first time in their lives. At first I think it was only the straight practical consideration of traveling and working the territory that moved him. But I think agents’ excitement at buying a car – either for the first time ever, or a car that was an improvement over the last – excited him too. Once also, he observed to me that car ownership seemed to do good things for many agents’ morale, motivation, and performance.

Ronnie did have a minority of agents who worked towns too. I was one for a while. We did ride in a car (not a van) with a car handler to neighborhoods where we would work streets or blocks as assigned. But agents working in towns were integrated with the other agents in all other ways, and town agents also were not abused in any of the ways mentioned above.

It should be clear that car ownership relates to the crew climate. Agents who have their own cars are probably far less susceptible to abuse by their managers. A climate where that is the norm is likely to be more safe and wholesome even for those agents who do not own cars. A manager who encourages ownership of such resources among his agents might typically be one who expects to lead them by positive methods rather than to advantage of people in their weakness.

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A final point on how there could be such differences among crews: many, it seems to me, are largely closed systems. The fact that they travel together makes them such, with some variations.

Why do they travel? Travel has the advantage of allowing a crew to reach a much larger market than staying in one city would. I do believe that this is the original, primary reason for the traveling – not for the glamor and excitement, as the job ads in the classifieds suggest, nor for sinister purposes such as luring people away from their homes in order to take advantage of them.

Group travel has tremendous potential to strengthen group bonding, and it can make a social group a far more closed system than a company that does not travel. I believe that where there are multiple systems operating in relative isolation from each other, they are likely to develop greater and greater differences over time. Certainly, once traveling, their lives are greatly changed.

For some people, who make a good transition from home life to a traveling life, it may be a positive, maturing, strengthening experience. It does happen this way for some people. But travel can also make agents more vulnerable generally and more vulnerable to abuse by managers if their manager has an abusive personality. (I also heard reports of homogeneous crews, all female or all black especially, but I never experienced one.)

Because of the travel, by far most agents that hire on are young adults, and the ratio of women to men was very low on any crew I ever experienced. A young female agent is likely to be surrounded by interested young men.

(The crews on my husband’s company were less closed. There were agents who made periodic visits back home, and whose families regularly came out to visit them, and we got to know their families and they, us. But I think you can imagine how closed a crew could become traveling year ‘round, spending only one to two weeks in each town. I believe my husband’s company was a rare exception, taking a break each late winter, when agents would go home for a vacation unless for some reason they didn’t want to, and then other arrangements could be made.)

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Have crews changed, worsened over the years? I have an unproven, general impression that crews may be working less and less in the rural areas now. The other two factors, traveling as a closed system, and individual leadership styles, these do not seem to me like they would trend either way through the decades.

Another possibility is that now, as then, abuse is common on many crews but not all. Perhaps all the news is about the worst companies, while those abiding by a better standard go unnoticed

The School Bus  (back)  |  Cedar Falls, Waverly, Clear Lake  (forward)

Crew Life as I Experienced It


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